Two weeks ago, The New Yorker Online published a short piece that raises the issue of how we can justify the performance of evil actions in video games, specifically in relation to the release of Grand Theft Auto V and its more problematic elements. Now, I am unable to address the game’s inclusion of a bit of malicious dentistry, as I have neither the interest in playing the game nor a console to play it on, and any defense or criticism of that specific event would have to examine its context within the game as a whole. The broader point that this instance of torture is acceptable provided the game’s overall thematic design makes it so – the handy comparison is the use of white phosphorous in Spec Ops: The Line, and the way in which it signifies the beginning of Walker’s moral decay – is safe to make, even though I cannot attest to whether a similar argument can be made for Grand Theft Auto V. To do anything more without a closer examination of the game’s minute particulars would be an example of dishonest criticism. However, the more general concern regarding the place of evil (an umbrella term, we might say, for violence, murder, or similarly sinister actions) in video games is valid. But even here the truism I formulated above – violence is okay if the game’s thematic coherency makes it okay – needs illustration.
First off, there is the need to dismiss the lazy defense of violent games, as it is common in both senses of the word. Yes, it is fair to say that all forms of media – novels, movies, TV shows, plays, and so on – sensationalize violence. But so what? By itself, the inclusion of violence, in and of itself, is hardly a credit to these mediums. When we justify the inclusion of darker details by pointing out their prevalence, we open the medium to the attack that it is no better than the other mediums at their worst. Ultimately, the logic of “if everyone’s doing it, then why can’t I?” is childish.
However, there is nothing wrong with mere entertainment, and, as items as various as The Three Stooges and Kill Bill have shown, violence can be entertaining. Beyond the token statement that there’s a difference in both kind and concentration between Wile E. Coyote and Kratos, I’m going to ignore the parsing of different kinds and justifications for this kind of cartoonish maliciousness because I am not interested in mere entertainment. There is nothing wrong with entertainment, but we must accept the premise that it is a transient thing – a game only lasts so long before its fun is worn out.
In contrast, art is timeless – or, at least, it perpetually strives to chase those goals. Poets would write for the sake of posterity, for the thought that they might find immortality in the continued reading of their work. Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18” (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”) makes this explicit, where “this” refers to the poem itself: “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, / So long lives this and this gives life to thee.” There is a richness to it that draws readers, viewers, and listeners back to experience and re-experience the particular, poignant beauty of the individual work. The experience is not merely entertaining – few can be find the fun in, say, the ending to King Lear, or The Glass Menagerie. And so, when it comes to the place of evil in art, “entertainment” is hardly a valid defense. There must be more to it.
If we are to look at instances of particularly ostentatious evil, we could do worse than start with the eye-gouging of Gloucester in King Lear. How is the violence justified? Well, it’s a particularly graphic demonstration of Cornwall and Regan’s cruelty – a low note, in fact, in a procession of callousness that starts with the rejection of their father and ends with a double fratricide. But if this were the only justification – a graphic kick-the-dog moment to get across the fact that these characters are really evil – then it would be insufficient. Worse than that, it would be a sloppy manipulation of the audience’s understanding, or cheap one-dimensional showmanship. But the context does justifies its inclusion. At the beginning of the scene, Cornwall explains his actions thus: “Though well we may not pass upon his life / Without the form of justice, yet our power shall do a curtsy to our wrath.” Here, Cornwall notes that he cannot “pass [judgement] upon his life,” or legally mandate Gloucester’s execution for treason “without the form of justice” or legal process, he nevertheless has rights within the law to do some harm. This framework, of course, means that we should read the blinding not merely as a moment of transparent villainy, but as lawful villainy. This concern with the letter of the law ties nicely into one of the play’s concerns: the contrast between those intangible laws that govern social interactions (of the duty of the child to the father, or the duty of a host to the guest) and the iron laws that govern succession and the hangman. Narrative-wise, Gloucester’s blinding nicely literalizes his metaphorical blindness towards his bastard son’s scheming – which leads into the way Edmund toys with different ideas of natural and unnatural laws (laws of succession particularly) bringing us back to the concern with the law that set this scene in motion. And on and on, until a web of associations connects this act with other elements in the play.
In King Lear, the violence is not simply there for the shock value; it is a moment with important links to the rest of the play’s concerns. The same goes for the violence in Spec Ops: The Line. Though the texture of the action is lifted directly from the thuggish tramping of Battlefield and Modern Warfare, it is the color of the violence that marks the game as interesting: except for the opening pastiche of any other military shooter, the enemies are American soldiers. That the both the player and the character accepts the premise by continuing to slaughter them raises uncomfortable concerns about the morality of the whole game. Within the game’s narrative, the continued murder of American soldiers by American soldiers is justified by Walker’s lovely syllogism: Konrad is the bad guy, these soldiers work for Konrad, ergo they are also bad guys and damn all other considerations; externally, the experience of placing American soldiers in the role of opposition – and the thoughtless acceptance of this role – raises concerns about the way other military shooters frame their petty moral dichotomy.
The most significant moment in the game is also its most profoundly horrifying: Walker has called down white phosphorous on what turns out to be a refugee camp run by Konrad’s men, and all he says is: “We need to keep moving. Reinforcements will be here any minute. We need to make these bastards pay for what they’ve done.” Walker is committed to the binary logic of deluded martial glory, and is incapable of recognizing his own part in the devastation, signalling both the game’s abrupt departure from its archetype while foreshadowing the color of what’s to come.
Going beyond the moral implications of the game as a satire of the petty logic of most military shooters, the Spec Ops‘ use of evil is ultimately aesthetic. It functions on an internal level (within the game’s twisted context) and on an external level (with the player and their expectations) while also connecting to the game’s other elements – the cognitive dissonance of murdering of American soldiers blends with the frequency of inverted, charred American flags, which in turn recalls the blasphemy of an inverted crucifix, all to further the disturbed, inverted context this tale of moral decay requires. The evil is, on one level, necessary because the games it takes its subject matter from are thoughtlessly violent. But the evil is absolutely necessary because we have become accustomed to the kind of action before the White Phosphorous scene, the way one becomes accustomed to coffee or alcohol. Further violence is necessary to show how artificial our acceptance of that violence is, as it forces us to reevaluate our biases and just how we’re parsing the experience. Alternatively, as the folks from Extra Credit put it, the reach of Konrad’s line “You’re here because you wanted to be something you’re not: a hero” extends far beyond lonely, broken Walker.
My main contention, I suppose, with The New Yorker article is that it treats the interactivity of the medium as its best feature. To my mind, this bears no small resemblance to a common defense of the novel, that the form has value because it exercises our empathy by placing us in the mind of someone else. To which one could ask: how evil should the headspace we share be? Should we read about a pedophile and a murderer with a fancy prose style? Rather, the interactivity that video games promise and provide is merely one element on the canvas. The parallel design in Spec Ops: The Line subsumes the player’s interactivity nicely: Walker’s tale and the player’s experience interact with each other and remain mutually constructive, but at no point does the player’s interaction dominate Walker’s story, just as Walker’s moral decay does not interfere with the player’s own growing sense of apprehension.
A work of art will be as violent or as interactive as it needs to be in the service of its design. All the rest is noise. Not unpleasant or unworthy noise – more like the sound of traffic and pedestrians during a summer afternoon downtown. But noise nevertheless, in contrast to the choir.